Love and Rockets: New Stories #3

Let me try to explain why I prefer Jaime Hernandez to Gilbert Hernandez. I mean, they’re both great, they’re both masters. I’m never unhappy to see a piece by Gilbert. But here’s the thing — Jaime’s stuff is … more rational, more inviting. I don’t guess he’d be thrilled to hear that, but there you go. You open a Xaime story, you know what you’re gonna get. He’s a known quantity/quality on the richest level, the way you know what you’re getting when you read Carl Barks. With Barks, you’re going to get a perfectly-told duck story. With Xaime, you’re going to get a perfectly-told Locas story: clean (not in the Disney sense) and humanistic and relatable, funny, sad, the whole package.

Beto, on the other hand …. His shit is scary creative, and sometimes just scary. Gilbert is the higher mathematics, you know what I’m saying? Ever since “Human Diastrophism” I haven’t felt safe in his company, haven’t trusted that crazy bastard. Because he will do some fucked-up shit when you least expect it. He can’t even do porn (Birdland) without surreal amounts of jizz spurting all over the place. They’re both artists — like, Artists — but Gilbert is on another level. Not necessarily a higher or lower level. In another zone, maybe.

So, boom, right on Jump Street of Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 there’s a Gilbert story. Deep breath. Okay. In we go with gun and flashlight.

And here we have “Scarlet by Moonlight,” which, according to Douglas Wolk, is “an adaptation of a movie in which [Beto’s] B-movie actress character Fritz appeared.” Three condescending anthropologists/scientists/whatever are in a forest studying a family of cat-people. Living nearby are monkey-like humanoid things called “pinkies,” which nobody seems to like. Scarlet, the big-bosomed cat-woman, seduces one of the scientists, and very fast the story goes right off the rails into insanity HOLY SHIT GILBERT DID NOT JUST DO THAT YES HE DID JESUS CHRIST.

Gilbert’s other story is “Killer/Sad Girl/Star,” which tracks “Killer,” an actress (a descendant of Beto’s most famous character, Luba) who seems to be considering a remake of the aforementioned cat-people flick. The narrative flips back and forth between a movie in which Killer appeared as a cavegirl, a possible sequel in which she’s an unfrozen cavewoman turned superheroine, and a crime movie featuring two naked guys who HOLY SHIT BETO DON’T KEEP DOING THAT.

I sound as though I hate what Gilbert is doing, but I don’t. Even during the most horrific moments, he has an ebullient sense of play, and his cartooning demands close reading not because the drawing is murky — it’s fearlessly open — but because he toys so much with narrative that we feel his riffing and experimenting are the point of the narrative.

After two issues among superheroines (and, man, wasn’t that a bold and sensationally entertaining reminder of how much fun superhero comics can be but so often aren’t these days), Jaime returns to Maggie, Ray, and a heretofore obscure character. The two-part “The Love Bunglers” reunites Maggie Chascarillo, the post-punk bisexual mechanic-turned-landlady with whom Jaime has been in love for almost thirty years, and Ray Dominguez, Jaime’s schlubby surrogate. Ray has aged and thickened from a Cusackian twentysomething into, well, something like what Cusack looks like now, only with an unflattering ‘stache (don’t even get me started on how Ray’s buddy Doyle has wizened over the years). Time passes like a mofo, and Maggie and Ray both are and aren’t the same people who went to see the polar bears all those issues ago.

The masterpiece here is “Browntown,” a young-Maggie story in which we meet her little brother Calvin. We actually meet him in “The Love Bunglers Part One,” but we don’t realize that until “Part Two,” when the whole narrative clicks together devastatingly. I shouldn’t say more, except that here, Xaime gives Beto a run for his money JESUS CHRIST JAIME WHY YOU DO THAT? WE GOT THE POINT THE FIRST TIME, WE DON’T HAVE TO KEEP SEEING IT …. But we kind of do, because it explains things we didn’t even know needed explaining.

Los Bros have both created these distinct universes (Palomar, Hoppers) in which they can play and dig and expand and explore, and there’s really nothing else like it in American comics. What started as a sort of Heavy Metal riff (both narratives began steeped in sci-fi and fantasy, until eventually naturalism and magical realism took over) has evolved into a two-tiered celebration of the medium and of storytelling, with dozens upon dozens of characters, each with his or her own rich backstory intertwined with other, equally rich backstories. I’m sympathetic to newcomers who find Love and Rockets a bit daunting, both as a “where do I start?” saga and as a monolith of critically acclaimed sequential art. But all I can say is, if you’re missing it, you don’t even begin to know what you’re missing.

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